Growing up with a brother with Down syndrome taught Jeanhee Hoffman that individuals with special needs are like everyone else. They learn, but they learn in their own way.
And it’s that message that Hoffman wants to bring to the Triangle with a new Gigi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center, which offers free educational and therapeutic programs to children and adults with Down syndrome.
Hoffman, a mother of two and president of Gigi’s Playhouse Raleigh, spearheaded the movement to bring the center to the Triangle. She said there’s a high concentration of children and adults with Down syndrome in the Triangle who will benefit from the programs that are offered.
“It’s a resource,” she said. “To meet a stranger who has a Down syndrome child the same age, there’s an immediate connection, because they know exactly what you’re going through.”
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Gigi’s, an international non-profit, was started in Chicago in 2003 by Nancy Gianni after her daughter, Gigi, was born with Down syndrome. There are 28 locations around the United States with one in Mexico. The center, located on the Raleigh-Cary border, will be the first in North Carolina. A grand opening is scheduled Saturday, June 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. with activities and a tour of the center.
Hoffman, originally from Chicago, moved to Chapel Hill 17 years ago. She heard about Gigi’s though a friend who noticed it in the Chicago area. The next time Hoffman was there, she and her brother, Sam, decided to check out the Gigi’s headquarters for themselves.
“I walked in, and it’s just like Disney World for Down syndrome families,” she said.
Upbeat music played, and the colors and furniture created a fun aesthetic that she and her Sam fell in love with. Next door, there’s a Gigi’s-affiliated coffee shop called Hugs + Mugs, where people with Down syndrome can intern and use the skills they learn at Gigi’s.
“You see these interns with Down syndrome and they’re working, they’re in their aprons and they’re cleaning tables and they’re serving coffee,” Hoffman said. “My brother Sam looks at me and goes, ‘I want to work here.’ ”
Bringing program to N.C.
While her brother was going through a program with Gigi’s, where he learned real-world job skills, Hoffman was going through the process of bringing Gigi’s to the Triangle. After she came back from her initial trip to Gigi’s last May, the vice president of marketing for C.W. Henderson & Associates, quickly decided she had to do all she could to open one locally.
“I saw the relief on my mom to be like, ‘Wow, this is a place I don’t have to explain anything about Sam,’ ” she said. “So literally the next day, I called headquarters.”
Headquarters gave her a playbook on how to start the program, and she began to raise money. Momentum started after she received a $50,000 donation from the Oak Foundation, an international charity, last June. Hoffman said she met with parents of children with Down syndrome from all over the Triangle to recruit board members and families interested in being a part of Gigi’s.
Rachel Geer was one of the mothers Hoffman approached. She has a 1-year-old son with Down syndrome, and she agreed to be the secretary for Gigi’s. She said she thinks Gigi’s will be important because it’s a place to gather.
“I think it’s a good thing to have because it’s a physical location and place for people with Downs and families to go to feel welcome and supported,” Geer said.
Jessica Moore of Apex said she plans on bringing her 2-year-old daughter with Down syndrome to Gigi’s. Her daughter, Jaxon, was born with a congenital heart defect as well, and had to have open heart surgery. After the surgery was successful, Moore started to think about ways to help her daughter live the best life she possibly could, despite her disabilities. She discovered Gigi’s.
“When I found Gigi’s I was just so excited to find another community of people with a close network,” she said. “I wanted (Jaxon) to have limitless possibilities.”
Hoffman continued to raise money, and after she got another $50,000 from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, she started looking for property in November. Hoffman and her team settled on 2887 Jones Franklin Road.
It’s in a brick shopping center near a grocery store with white letters spelling out “Gigi’s” and a picture of Gigi herself smiling on the window. Hoffman said they chose to be in a shopping center because she wants Gigi’s to reach as many people as possible, which means being visible.
“We want people to know – these are kids just like us, they’re social like us, they’re teenagers like us,” she said. “They want to have a job, they want to work, and they want to have pride, and there’s nothing to be scared of. They’re not going to hurt you.”
Her mission, Hoffman said, isn’t just to educate those with Down syndrome, but to educate others along with bringing people together, and giving families with Down syndrome relatives a community of support.
Hoffman had a “mock-playhouse” in November at Primrose Valley Day School – with an attendance of over 60 families – to give people an idea of what Gigi’s is all about.
“Somebody came from an hour and a half away, but came, because there’s no place like this,” she said.
Programs are run by volunteers, and the only paid employee is a site coordinator who runs the playhouse. Hoffman said the response has been phenomenal; she gets inquiries from people wanting to be volunteers every day, and the playhouse has had two volunteer orientations already.
“It’s amazing,” Hoffman said. “It’s kind of like that ‘build and they will come’ concept.”
To date, she said they’ve raised over $200,000 from donations and fundraisers. The program will cost $125,000 a year to run. The Gigi U program won’t start until the fall or winter.
Hoffman has devoted her time, when she’s working, to Gigi’s because she wants other families to experience what her’s felt after her brother went through a Gigi’s University program. She said it changed his life.
“He’s like this new guy,” she said. “He has this confidence that he’s never had before, and he has purpose.”
Paige Connelly: 919-460-2609; @pconnellly
GiGi’s Playhouse will hold a grand opening from 2-4 p.m. at 2887 Jones Franklin Road, Raleigh. The playhouse will offer free educational and therapeutic programming to individuals of all ages with Down syndrome, their families and the community. For information and to RSVP: 919-307-3952, gigisplayhouse.org/raleigh.